Composer Sousa's march music celebrates a great love of country
You're more likely to hear a march on the Fourth of July than any other time of the year. And chances are it will be “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa, which was made our national march by act of Congress in 1987.
Marches can work their magic on our spirit any time of the year, of course. Tuneful, energetic and optimistic, marches go well with many activities. Some people who put them on while doing chores find the work gets done in a jiffy.
But since Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, patriotic music has particular resonance. No music is more associated with national pride than Sousa marches, except perhaps “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“There is a vitality and effervescence in Sousa's march style that captures our spirit, especially at (the time he wrote them) — the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century — when we were finding ourselves as a country that could potentially lead the globe,” says Col. Michael J. Colburn, director of the U.S. Marine Band. “The patriotism and vitality comes through in every note. I can't think of a single Sousa march that doesn't have that sense of excitement, of boundless possibilities.”
Sousa (1854-1932) was the son of immigrants. He was raised in Washington, D.C., because his Portugese father, Antonio, played trombone in the Marine Band. Sousa became an apprentice in the band when he was 13, left it when he was 20, and became its director in 1880.
Sousa left the Marines in 1892 and formed his own band, which toured widely throughout the country and was immensely popular. When the U.S. became involved in World War I in 1917, Sousa joined the Navy because he wanted to serve. His terms included setting his own salary — $1 per month.
“The power of not only the music but also the legacy of Sousa is apparent to us whenever we play any Sousa march, but especially ‘Stars and Stripes,' ” Colburn says. “We can't play it at every one of our concerts, but every time we don't, you feel an implied question — why aren't we? Every time we launch into it and feel the visceral response of the audience, it makes it new to us. You feel the joy it brings, the satisfaction of hearing the Marine Band, the country's oldest military band, playing the music of its 17th director.”
Sousa transformed the Marine Band during his tenure, first with the high level of discipline he instilled, according the Sgt. Michael Ressler, the band's historian.
“Any musician who wasn't highly motivated and prepared to work hard did not last long under his leadership,” Ressler says.
Sousa expanded and refined the band's instrumentation, including a full wind section with saxophones.
His first big hit as a composer of marches was “The Gladiator” written in 1886. He wrote “Semper Fidelis,” the Marines' official march, in 1888.
Frederic Fennell was in high school when he played under Sousa's direction in 1931. Fennell went on to become an acclaimed band leader, whose work with the Eastman-Rochester Wind Ensemble is documented on dozens of outstanding recordings on the Mercury label.
“Those of us there who did the playing at the rehearsals and concerts had not the slightest interest in, let alone any real ability to judge, his conducting technique. He made what we thought were the right motions, and when he did, we played our hearts out for him,” Fennell wrote. “In this last summer of his life, he was 77 years old and comparatively frail, but he was ‘Our Sousa,' the ‘King of the March.' ”
Keith Brion's life was transformed during his tenure as director of the Yale University Band (1973-80) by reading Paul E. Bierley's biography of Sousa. Until then, Brion had been focused on what could be called “more serious” band music.
“I was struck by lightning when I read Bierley's book,” Brion says. “It was so absorbing and showed that the conventional thinking I and my colleagues had about Sousa was wrong.”
Bierley's book inspired Brion to do research to find the real Sousa. Brion's biggest success with the Yale Band was an all-Sousa concert, actually a re-creation of a Sousa concert in programming and performance style. The conductor even dressed as Sousa.
In 1979, Brion formed the New Sousa Band, with which he has recorded 16 CDs of Sousa's music. Volumes 17 and 18 are set to be recorded in the fall.
Although Sousa's band made many recordings, most were not led by Sousa. There are only 11 authentic Sousa recordings. When Brion listened to Sousa's 1917 recording of “The U.S. Field Artillery,” he was struck by the difference in what was accented in the Trio for the words “Over hill, over dale, we will hit the marching trail.”
While the short notes for the word “over” are usually accented today, Brion was struck that Sousa emphasized the long notes for “hill” and “dale.”
Trios are a section or sections in the middle of a march, or a minuet for that matter, that provide contrast by being more lyrical and less strenuous. Sousa was particularly gifted at writing Trios. Most have easily memorable melodies, but his most famous Trio is the angular and virtuoso piccolo solo in “Stars and Stripes.”
Then too, Brion found the published versions of Sousa marches often depart from the composer's orchestration, even for “Stars and Stripes Forever.” He says he searches for the “sweet spot,” a pacing where all the elements of the march sound right.
Brion also emphasizes the importance of percussion, and says a snare drummer who can play a good six-stroke roll in the final section of a march helps keep the tempo from going too fast.
“That's exactly right,” says Jack DiIanni, a percussionist. He drives from Pittsburgh several times a year to play Sousa and other band repertoire with Loras John Schissel, music director of the Virginia Grand Military Band in Fairfax Station, Va., and the Blossom Festival Band, in Akron, Ohio. DiIanni is also the timpanist for the Pittsburgh Opera and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre orchestra, and president of Volkwein's Music in RIDC Park West.
DiIanni travels to play Sousa because Schissel “does everything to emulate how Sousa played these marches.” It involves the prominence of the percussion section and specifics of drum sound.
“Schissel and I have a magnetic connection. I lock into what he does. I know his tempo because it's my tempo, too,” the percussionist says. “It always lines up from the first beat.”
DiIanni specializes in playing bass drum with attached cymbal, the way it was in Sousa's band. He's proud that his bass drum was picked out by Sousa's bass drummer for another musician from whom he acquired it.
“To me, a march is a mini overture in the learning process. After learning marches, overtures become easier, and then symphonies become easier,” DiIanni says. “Sousa's marches have everything: great melody, great rhythm, great harmony and great countermelody — the four elements of great music.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.